It’s really quite strange in our multicultural country that the Australian literary scene seems to have failed to produce much in the way of writing in other languages, available to the rest of us in translation. The obvious answer to this conundrum might be that it’s because we expect migrants to abandon their mother-tongues and learn English, but if it were once true it certainly isn’t any more. Indeed, it is commonplace to meet people who’ve lived in this country for twenty years or more who cannot chat with their neighbours in response to a friendly greeting. (I know this from my local experience in the suburbs of Melbourne, and I think it is sad, because my childhood experiences living in other countries taught me that learning the lingua franca is a shortcut to friendship. As an adult I have always made the effort to learn at least a little of the language of the countries that I visit as a tourist.)
Leaving aside those who choose to remain in linguistic isolation, in Australia there are plenty of people born here or elsewhere who are fluent in multiple languages. Do they write in these other languages, or do they or their publishers succumb to market forces? I don’t know, and until I read the introduction in Oh Lucky Country by Rosa Cappiello, I confess that I had never thought about it. Now, I think it matters, for we express ourselves in our mother-tongue with a freshness and fluency that only the most proficient can do in a second language. There are also some word-plays that can only be made in languages other than English, and although of course they’re going to be lost in translation, that’s no reason not to write them.
Oh Lucky Country is a rarity in Australian literature that it was written in Italian and translated into English not long after publication in the 1970s. Now reissued for The Australian Classics Library, it is raw, angry and confronting, yet curiously seductive. Here is the voice of that army of Italian migrant factory workers of the seventies: they were invisible to many, or known only in halting conversations that could not progress beyond simple greetings. Was Rosa’s scorn for Australian culture and mores widespread? Impossible to know!
In so far as we hear migrant or ethnic minority voices at all in Australian writing, we are accustomed to hearing them as victims, doubly enhanced by the first-person mode. These accounts, duly reworked into the muted understatements acceptable to Anglo-Celtic ears, evoke a pity tinged with complacency. Mainstream readers are not prepared for this kind of extravaganza in which outcast voices from the gutter, from the bottom of the heap, boil over into a flood which sweeps away many clichés about being a migrant.
Well, most Australian readers are not going to like Rosa’s intemperate point of view: it’s an unflattering portrait of Australia and Australians. When the book was first published most reviewers apparently dismissed it with patronising suggestions that Cappiello didn’t know what she was doing, analogous to describing art naive as childlike.
The charge of incompetence is a familiar one in reviews of works by so-called ethnic writers. The obvious response to this example is first, that the reviewer himself should learn something (‘anything would do’) about literary history in order to give him a context other than the realist mode in which to situate texts, and second, that he take a course in literary theory which, among other things, might teach him not to confuse the author with the narrator.
According to the author of this essay, (which I found very useful as an antidote to my first reaction to Oh Lucky Country) Rosa’s litany of complaints and her robust criticisms are not ‘the confessional voice of naive suffering’ for there are sophisticated allusions to literary antecedents, and the text is a ‘parody of high or received culture of any kind’.
But without the benefit of recognising intertextuality, its debt to Dante’s Divine Comedy or the symbols of mythic grotesques which apparently explain the confronting aspects of this book, what will mainstream readers encounter? Language that we’re not used to from women: profuse scatology, lots of swearing, and anarchic allusions to the womb, to urination and defecation, and to motherhood as a burden. There is stereotyping of the host culture which criticises everything from the impotent psuedo-masculinity of the Australian male (p21) to the arid landscapes of inner city architecture (p23). That ironic title, an allusion to Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country , is a reference to how Australians see themselves and to their expectation that migrants will be grateful for being allowed to participate in that good fortune even at the margins.
The wildness of the writing and the extravagant imagery is a bit overwhelming after a while. However amongst the turbulence of the prose there are observations that show the value of meeting this extraordinary voice:
- Rosa’s incomprehension at the treatment of the elderly. She sees a neglected old alcoholic woman and says ‘I would never have believed that old people would be so neglected anywhere’. (p21)
- Her bemusement at relations between the sexes, their ‘pure and simple giving and taking as among equals‘ without the barriers or the burdens of courtship (p21) and her outrage at the persisting Italian male demand for a virgin bride.
- Her refusal to identify with the ethnic community as expected, for fear of losing her individuality (p5) and because the assimilation she sees offends her: Those born here even cut their spaghetti with a knife and remove their body hair. (p17)
- Her assertion that it’s necessary to let off steam, to challenge expectations of respectability and industriousness that are the passport to a grudging acceptance from their hosts. (p44)
- The lack of choices for economic migrants like Rosa and her friend Helen. ‘Why don’t you migrate to another country?‘ asks Rosa. ‘Where to? ….There’s nothing, a void.’ Helen replies. (p45)
Loneliness, overcrowding, exploitation, mindless work and hopelessness: ‘I’m dying of misery,’ Helen confesses, ‘This house makes me sick to my soul. (p49) What we read in this unruly voice from the 1970s is a poignant portrait of dreams come to nothing, of disillusionment, and despair. The Rosa of Oh Lucky Country has to come to terms with the unpalatable truth that she came unprepared and in ignorance of the host culture which she doesn’t like. She reacts by scorning it, but her anger is really with herself. Her vituperative language about Australia, Australians, its migrant communities and its failure to live up to her expectations is a mask for her own recognition that she too had been seduced by the promise of materialism, and that was why she came here.
When I feel alone and desperate I too want to go back home with its smell of tarallucci biscuits and vino, the laughter and the friends. But everyone had to bear the cross they deserve. You can’t have everything. Either feed your belly or nourish your spirit. Better the belly. (p68)
Read with an open mind and some understanding of the book’s literary heritage, Oh Lucky Country offers a different perspective that enriches our understanding of the complexity of our society. Taken at random from the library shelf and read out of context, Cappiello’s fiction will probably be rejected today, just as it was in the 1970s.
Author: Rosa Cappiello
Title: Oh Lucky Country
Translated from the Italian by Gaetano Rando
Publisher: Sydney University Press 2009
198 pages, paperback
Source: Sydney University Press review copy.
 Framing Marginality: The Grotesque Migrant Body: Rosa Cappiello’s Oh Lucky Country. author Sneja Gunew, http://faculty.arts.ubc.ca/sgunew/FRAMARG/FIVE.HTM
PS 22.6.10 Thanks to Jayne Persian for providing me with the author’s name.
 Horne used the term Lucky Country ironically, a point lost on most users of the expression, and possibly on Cappiello herself.